Grief has many faces. Perhaps there are tears or anger or breakdowns. But grief is intensely personal. I am the face of grief that is considered stoic and strong. After the intensity of the new pain, I grew a steely resolve that does not often succumb to public weeping. My vulnerability is saved for those I think I can trust.
One of the most surprising facets of mourning to me was that it opens you to criticism and debate. One must not be out of control, but one must also never be too cool. That makes you unfeeling. Not unaffected, but not dramatic. Not perfectly stable, but not hysterical. Perform for the audience the way they expect, or your performance will be faulted.
Let me clarify. The appearance of emotion does not reflect the depths of my grief. I am not indifferent to the loss of my son. I am not removed or detached or completely in control. Grief is incoherent and unsettling, and loss and shock can cause an unraveling. Grief is not rational, but it can appear so. A placid surface can hide a chaotic vortex. I am not steel. I enter emotional lockdown for my own functionality while I am under extreme stress. It is a way of coping.
But I am also a realist. I recognize that death happens, and we keep living. I can live in fear because I know it can all end suddenly, or I can live in appreciation because I know it can all end suddenly. I am not a professor or a preacher or a pundit – I am a traveler. I can only show you that healing is possible. I am a pragmatist. Death is coming. We may be reluctant to talk about the inevitable, but that does not prevent it. The loss of control is terrifying. There are days when my perceptions are different and I spiral, watching this fact that we deny swirl around me and I am dizzied by its force.
That force throws me into the depths sometimes because I hate unanswerable questions, and what is death but the ultimate unanswerable question that we like to convince ourselves we have the answer to? I write. I am a storyteller. I like to control the narrative with neat endings and well-worn paths. But even when I try to write those stories, the characters meander away from the script in my head and toward the truth of messier tales. I like to control the story, but I don’t. I can’t. I didn’t control my own story, but I still had to live it. I am not an illumination of grief and loss – I am just a person who tried to recalibrate to the best of my ability when the plans I made forced me onto an uncharted route.
As I sat down to write this piece, it meandered from my plan as well. It began as a piece about how you cannot tell the extent of a person’s emotions by looking at them, and that the expectations of wounded people should be tempered by the knowledge that loss is different for different people. It became a stream of consciousness about how we can be more open to talking about death, the elemental loss of control, and ultimately, how we live with death. Because that is what we must do – live with death. Embrace your end, and you embrace existence. The person you mourned existed, and that is a beautiful thing. The emptiness they left is a testament to their place in the beautiful mess that is life. It matters.